Charlie Hebdo and the War Within Global Jihad

al qaeda
People shout slogans in support of the Yemeni army and security forces in a U.S.-backed campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in Sanaa. AQAP has mounted dozens of attacks on government officials, security forces and foreigners in recent months. Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters

The horrific terrorist attack in Paris comes in the context of an escalating ideological war within the global jihadist movement pitting the Islamic State (or ISIS) against Al-Qaeda. The last month has seen a sharp uptick in the ideological conflict.

The two groups have been at odds for months, but their war of words intensified in December. In a coordinated offensive, three Al-Qaeda franchises—Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Nusra Front—published on their media sites attacks on the legitimacy of the ISIS caliphate.

AQIM published the longest (96 pages), most detailed and specific assault. AQAP published a criticism of the caliphate that suggested all pledges of loyalty to it must be null and void because it is illegitimate. Interestingly, Al Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan did not comment, perhaps refusing to deign to even discuss Caliph Ibrahim (a.k.a. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).

ISIS responded late in December in the latest issue of its online English-language magazine Dabiq. It had an article titled "Al-Qaeda of Waziristan: A Testimony From Within" that was sharply critical of Al-Qaeda and Mullah Omar's Taliban.

Al-Qaeda was accused of moving too slowly to create a caliphate, and Mullah Omar for considering negotiations with the Crusader enemy. Dabiq even indirectly criticized Osama bin Laden for not being eager for a caliphate, crossing a red line in jihadists' literature.

The articles online produced a flurry of social media messaging. ISIS lost ground by taking a swipe at bin Laden but gained ground by suggesting AQAP's caution had empowered the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen to take Sanaa. Some ISIS supporters suggested the criticism of bin Laden was a result of poor translation and editing.

The war inside the global jihad over the legitimacy of the caliphate, and who is the proper heir to bin Laden (Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), is bound to lead to competition to outdo each other on the battlefield as well. In that context, a major terror attack in Europe would be a significant achievement.

Bruce Riedel is director of The Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution website.